Sufi orders: a vital part of Egyptian society

Al-Sayyed Hossein, Tuesday 9 Oct 2012

With an estimate 10 million members, Sufi orders are an under-reported influence in Egyptian life

A march for Sufi Orders in Egypt(Photo: courtesy from

Sufi orders have chapters all over Egypt, which organise festivals on saints days, hold chanting events, and engage in community work. Several chapters offer free-of-charge funerary service and some organise accommodation for visitors.

Sufi sheikhs, or grand masters, have a reputation for austerity and wisdom and are held in great veneration by their murids, or disciples. The murids come from a cross section of society, and many hold high-status posts as academics, officers, doctors,and journalists.

Sheikh Alaa Abu Al-Azayem, the grand master of the Al-Azimiya order, says that many Sufi orders were formed by immigrants who had arrived in Egypt from other parts of the Islamic world centuries ago, which explains the different in approach and style from one order to another.

Abu Al-Azayem adds that the Egyptian Sufism is known for its moderation and easygoing manners.

Researcher Abul Fadl Al-Isnawi says that the most important of Egyptian Sufi orders is the Al-Rifa’iya, founded by Ahmad Al-Rifa’i Ibn Saleh Ibn Abbas (b. 512 hegira), who refused to accept any disciples who have no known profession, as he didn’t want his order to be filled with people who have no desire to work and be part of society.

Another major order is the Al-Badawiya, founded in Tanta by Al-Sayyed Ahmad al-Badawi in Tanta, who taught his disciples to be at peace with themselves and the world.

Sheikh Abdel Rahim Al-Qenawi, who founded the Al-Qenawiya order in Qena, also ordered his disciples to remain fully involved in daily life while seeking spiritual evolvement.

Sheikh Abul Hasan al-Shazli Al-Hoseini ibn Abdallah, founder of Al-Shazliya order, emphasised seclusion and self-control as a path for salvation. Al-Shazliya has served as a role model for several other orders in the country.

In every geographical area, some orders have gained more popularity than others. For example, the Al-Borhamiya and Al-Saadiya are widespread in Cairo; while the Al-Naqshabandiya, Al-Khodariya, Al-Hashemiya, Al-Sharnubia Al-Burhamiya are predominant in Alexandria.

In Al-Gharbiya, the leading orders are the Al-Qasabiya Al-Khelwatiya, Al-Shennawiya Al-Ahmadiya, and Al-Marwaniya. In Al-Menoufiya, the most popular orders are the Al-Zahidiya. Al-Ahmadiya and Al-Mosaylihiya Al-Khelwatiya.

In all, the members of Sufi orders outnumber the members of Egyptian political parties. Some researchers estimate membership of Sufi orders at 10 million in both rural and urban areas.

Over time, every order developed its own paraphernalia, including flags, insignia, music, and ritualised celebrations.

Despite their rivalry, in the sense of seeking to recruit more followers, Sufi orders are remarkably cooperative and hospitable to one another. In various festivals, Sufi orders invite each other and help organise accommodation for visitors, which adds to their visibility and boosts their collective popularity.

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